Missing Peter Falk

I knew that Peter Falk was an actor who often improvised, as his often powerful work with John Cassavetes attests, but I was still surprised to learn, first, that Falk was in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and second, that Falk largely improvised his role.

Joseph Susanka discusses it all, here

For me, however, the single most thought-provoking performance of his long and highlight-laden career will always be “Der Filmstar,” from Wim Wenders’ ethereal meditation, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin).

The film’s premise, while theologically problematic, is a fascinating one: Damiel (the incomparable Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels whose sole mission is to wander the streets of West Berlin watching over its inhabitants. But these are no ordinary guardian angels: Damiel and Cassiel (indeed, all angels) are forbidden from directly interfering with the lives of the humans they are observing. While their presence can sometimes influence events in an oblique way—in one of the film’s more powerful scenes, Damiel brings comfort to a dying motorist by placing an imperceptible hand on his forehead—their role is primarily that of a witness. “Do no more than look,” Cassiel reminds his companion. “Assemble, testify, preserve. Remain spirit. Keep your distance.”
Weaving in, out, and around this story and its unlikely protagonists is Falk’s “Der Filmstar,” a relatively small yet crucial character. His presence is unexplained and he is never even named, yet as the only adult in the city of Berlin who can actually see the angels, his character is essential to Wenders’ efforts. Through him, the film is able to meld the angelic and human realms, providing audiences with a common point of reference between the two. It is he who provides Damiel with the guidance and encouragement necessary to face his dilemma.

Read it all. Once again Susanka makes me want to see a film I’d pretty much dismissed.

I always did like the U2 video for “Faraway, So Close” which is almost like an encapsulation of Wings of Desire, though:

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Pat Patterson

    But these angels are also problematic because Wenders makes it clear that they are not only pre-Christian but rather pagan nature spirits. Falk also thought Wenders was an idiot and got out of Berlin ASAP.

    But who can forget the sad Solveig Dommartin who even in love seemed to expect the absolute worst from everyday life. And the hagiographic representation of Gorbachev is something that should have been edited out considering the tone of the film suggested continuity and inevitability while his presence echos the Great Man theory of world history.

  • jtd7

    Problematic though it is, the film is worth seeing.
    I’m pleased to see you blog about Peter Falk. I do not cry easily, and I can think of only three movies that have made me cry. Two of them are narrated by Peter Falk: “The Princess Bride” and “Pocketful of Miracles.” I give him credit for reaching me in some mysterious way.

  • http://www.sthubertsrosary.com shana

    Peter Falk was a favorite of mine, too. Just seeing him on screen would bring a smile to my face because he oozed amiability and humor. He seemed to be a genuinely happy man.

    If you can find him on YouTube speaking on the the Dean Martin Roasts, no matter who he is ‘roasting’ or whether he’s in character as Columbo or as himself, the whole speech is laced with good cheer and real fun.

  • zmama

    Wings of Desire is one of my all time favorite films-my husband’s too. As my husband once said it’s more than a film, it’s an experience. At least it is for those with eyes to see.

    @Pat Patterson all I can say is “Huh?” Angels do predate Christianity. Have you ever read the OT? Our catechism even teaches that angels predate the first man and woman.

    Yes, you may need to suspend some of your beliefs in watching this film but you will be richly rewarded in the numerous scenes of angels carrying out their roles of comforters and guardians of humans.

    I saw Wings of Desire when it first came out in the theaters-before the Berlin wall came down-when few could conceive of that ever happening in their lifetime. Watching it now 20+ years after the wall came down makes it even more amazing and poignant.

    Spoiler alert:

    But the greatest part of the film is at the end when Damiel states “I AM together” as he exclaims his amazement at the joining of a man and a woman which then leads to the miracle of a new life. To me that is John Paul II’s eloquent Theology of the Body summed up in 3 words.

    Furthermore, “I AM together” can only occur with a man and a woman, not a man and a man, nor a woman and a woman. Only when the 2 complementary natures of man and woman are united can a new being created in God’s image come into existence. For those that would debate that and cite assisted reproductive technology, it is still necessary to have the genetic material of a man and a woman in those cases.

    Just don’t confuse this beautiful, thought provoking film with the American rip off City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. Watch the original in German with English subtitles. Then watch it again.

  • Pat Patterson

    Yes, indeed angels precede Christianity but again Wenders makes it clear in the long introduction that these angels owe nothing to monotheistic thought but rather spirits that have taken human form for the conceit of the director and, most importantly, are tied to a specific locale. Where in either both parts of the Bible are angels described in such a manner?

  • zmama

    Does EVERYTHING have to follow the Catholic catechism? As someone who has faithfully and happily followed the teachings of our church I can also allow for artistic license and enjoy a wonderful work of art which has done more for me spiritually than the leaders of my own Archdiocese (Phila.) have of late.

    Since the original post was about Peter Falk, I must say when he found out Falk had passed away my husband texted me to say that “Peter Falk is once again in the skies over Berlin”.

    It may not be orthodox Catholic theology but this film like no other makes you appreciate what it is to be alive and yet allows you to ponder a dimension outside of this earthly reality.

    I’m sure it may shock you but before we were married we asked our priest friend who celebrated our wedding liturgy to watch the film.

    We also had “I AM together” engraved in our wedding bands to remind us that together, our marriage, as all sacramental marriages are meant to be, is an image of the Trinity.

  • Peregrinus

    Der Himmel Uber Berlin is one of my favorite films. Faraway, So Close! not so much…

    I would make one slight correction to the movie review in that Falk’s character can’t actually see the angels but only sense their presence (too nit-picky?)

    Wings of Desire is one of the most eloquent explorations of what it means to be incarnated.

  • Jeanne

    I only had to see the title of your post and I thought of Faulk’s cameo in “Wings of Desire” how delightful to scroll down and realize this was the subject of your post. Thanks!

  • zmama

    Anchoress, I don’t mean to change the topic from Peter Falk and/or Wings of Desire but I just got back from seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and I’d love to get your take on it if you get a chance to see it.